Who is Esther Summerson?

Last week in class we had a rather heated discussion about Esther Summerson. Esther as narrator. Esther as character. Esther as Dickens’ ideal woman. Esther as abused child. Esther as an example of Dickens’ inability to write believable women.

It is this last characterization that I wish to consider in this blog post. My knee-jerk reaction to such accusations of both Dickens and the characters in his novels is to fiercely defend them. Of course Dickens knew how to write believable women! And, as a woman character that Dickens wrote, of course Esther is believable!

But is she?

If I am honest with myself, even in my fierce defense of Bleak House’s first-person narrator, I am compelled to admit that there is something unsatisfying in the “happily ever after” that Esther receives. On the one hand, she seems to have been given freedom from the trails of her past. She is happily married to the man she loves, while still maintaining the place of honor at the side of her old guardian. She rejoices over the fact that Mr. Jarndyce continues to call her by her pet names, “Dame Trot, Dame Durden, Little Woman!—all just the same as ever,” and that she can still “answer, Yes, dear guardian! just the same as ever” (769). She seems to have moved on from the abuse and trauma of her past, to believe at last that she is loved, to at last to have accepted that “I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers; and that before my Heavenly Father I should not be punished for birth, nor a queen rewarded for it” (454-55).

On the other hand, Esther seems nearly as bent on pleasing others and thereby gaining their approval at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She continues to conform herself to the Victorian (Dickensian?) model of ideal femininity in order to avoid bringing any further accusations of unworthiness upon herself. Even her joy over being called “Dame Trot, Dame Durden, Little Woman” seems to show that Esther and her companions are still identifying her by what she does—by the way that she conforms herself to Victorian ideals to obviate her non-ideal birth. Though Dickens seems to be trying to give her freedom from her past and identity outside of the circumstances of her birth, the identity that he gives her is itself restrictive and unrealistic.

Because that is the case, I am tempted to agree that Esther is in fact an unconvincing character, merely representing Dickens’ feminine ideal. My classmates are right: Dickens doesn’t know how to write women.

And yet…

And yet Esther still seems to be trying to break free from her past, free from her attempt to achieve perfection, free from the new restrictive identity that she has taken in place of the old. Though she has not yet achieved this freedom at the end of the novel (and perhaps never will), the final lines of the novel yet give us hope that perhaps she will at last believe that she has been given a new identity, that she is loved in spite of what she does:

I did not know that [I was prettier than I ever was]; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent fact the ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me—even supposing— (770)

Similarity in Difference: Representational Modes in Bleak House

One of the key themes that we have been exploring throughout our Victorian Prose course this semester is the issue of representation. How do the authors represent reality? Does their mode of representation change between the different genres in which they wrote? Is it possible to present an objective illustration of reality in either a journal or a novel?

These questions become especially interesting when they are asked of Charles Dickens’ 1853 novel Bleak House. One of the most unique features of this novel is its dual narration. Rather than telling the story from one narrative perspective, Dickens complicates the already complex tale by passing the narration between a third-person omniscient narrator and a first-person limited narrator. As a result, Dickens’ modes of representation change not only between genres, but also between the covers of a single novel.

The first of these modes of representation is that of the third-person omniscient narrator. The style of representation employed here is remarkably similar to that which Dickens employed in his (already quite narrative-based) journalism. One of the most striking similarities is between his treatment of various political organizations. This is seen in Bleak House in the third-person omniscient narrator’s critique of the High Court of Chancery, where the members of the bar are “mistily engaged in one of the ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running their goat-hair warded heads against walls of words, and making a pretense of equity with serious faces…” (6), and where “Chizzle, Mizzle, and otherwise, have lapsed into a habit of vaguely promising themselves that they will look into that outstanding little matter, and see what can be done with Drizzle…” at some indefinite point in the distant future (9). Similarly, in the journal article “To Working Men,” Dickens critiques the established Parliament, where “[t]he glorious right of voting for Lord This (say Seymour, for instance) or Sir John That; the intellectual state of Abyssinia; the endowment of the College of Maynooth; the paper duty; the newspaper duty; the five per cent.; the twenty-five per cent.; the ten thousand hobby-horses that are exercised before him…” are supposed to recompense the working man for the neglect by the parliament of his own concerns (468). In each of these cases, Dickens employs a similar comically distanced style of representation, revealing the absurdity of political structures through a satirical listing of the endless procedures, achieving nothing in particular, performed by ambiguous individuals.

While the third-person narrator of Bleak House has in general an all-knowing, critical, didactic tone, the first-person narrator is perceptive, yet doubtful of her own opinions, and does not attempt to force those opinions on others. Instead, Esther merely does her duty, modeling the behavior that Dickens desires his readers to emulate. For instance, rather that instructing the reader on the steps to be taken to assist the poor, Esther simply does what she can to ease the pain of the woman who has just lost her child, quietly “d[oing] what I could to make the baby’s rest the prettier and gentler” and “tr[ying] to comfort the mother” (100). Different though this personalized mode of representation is from that of the third-person narrator, it is also interestingly enough echoed in Dickens’ journalistic writings in the experiences of the author himself. For instance, in “A Nightly Scene in London,” Dickens and a friend encounter five poor women asleep on the stairs of a Workhouse. After a dialogue with the master of the Workhouse, Dickens and his companion rouse the women and give them money for food and lodging and then quietly go on their way (364). Though Dickens does lapse into a more didactic tone at the end of the article, he is for the most part concerned simply in demonstrating for his readers one of the ways in which they, too, could respond to the horrors that they encountered in their daily travels.

Thus, though Dickens’ third- and first-person narratives in Bleaks House employ widely different styles of representation—in one case frequently “telling,” in the other “showing”—both styles of representation are found in his journalistic writings, thereby demonstrating the versatility of Dickens’ widely-acclaimed and widely-beloved narrative abilities.


Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. George Ford and Sylvére Monod. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

—. “A Nightly Scene in London.” Selected Journalism, 1850-1870. Ed. David Pascoe. New York: Penguin, 1997. 361-65. Print.

—. “To Working Men.” Selected Journalism, 1850-1870. Ed. David Pascoe. New York: Penguin, 1997. 467-70. Print. 

Generality in Theory and Specificity in Fiction

In her chapter “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists,” Rae Greiner explores the idea of realism in fiction as an effect that the novel has upon the reader. She argues that “realism in the nineteenth-century British novel … is best understood as ‘sympathetic realism,’ not simply because the novels promote or are about sympathy … but because they employ forms designed to enact sympathetic habits of mind in readers” (15). She understands sympathy to be not purely emotive, but cognitive, with emotional response brought about by cognitive assent to and entrance into the mental state of another. She suggests that realist fiction is the best platform for sympathy, for “fiction alone grants ‘nobodies’ … specificity that distinguishes them from the (fictional) generality out of which they emerge” (47). That is, only in the context of fiction is the other able to gain selfhood in the mind of the reader, for in fiction alone does the individual other become distinct from the general, typical other.

It is interesting to consider Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism in relation to Harriet Martineau’s sociological observations in How to Observe Morals and Manners in comparison with her novel Deerbrook. Does this idea of a notion of the selfhood of the other as gained only through fiction hold true in Martineau’s works?

My first response, based upon my own reaction to the works and upon the conversation that we had in class way-back-when we were reading Martineau at the beginning of the semester is an emphatic yes. Martineau’s sociological treatise is interesting and provides the reader with valid points as to how to charitably observe and judge the actions of others. However, this treatise neither presents us with others to view as selfs, nor encourages us to view others in that way. Instead, it assists us in the task of scientifically categorizing and labeling others in order to further our own agenda—even if we are to do so in the most charitable way possible.

For example, Martineau writes of how “popular songs are both the cause and effect of general morals” (83). She goes on to explain how this is the case, and why it is therefore important for the observer to pay careful attention to these songs “as an index of popular morals” (83). While these instructions are good in their way, and while they do to a certain extent encourage an impartial view of the situation, they do not help the reader to see the other as a specific self. Instead, they encourage the reader to read other human beings as they would scientific data, categorizing them under a set of undefined criteria based upon the reader’s personal experience of the world. Thus, in Martineau’s nonfiction, we see not people, but data; individual others become nobodies and are consumed into the generality.

In contrast, in Deerbrook Martineau aims to help the reader to enter into the experience of the other, thereby encouraging the recognition of the specificity and selfhood of the other that Grainer suggests is attained only in fiction.

One of the most striking examples of this is in Maria Young, the invalid governess who doesn’t on the surface appear to get the happy ending that her merits warrant. Though we may be tempted to classify her under the general, stereotypical category of “unlucky single woman who is destined to become bitter and unhappy after her former lover marries her best friend,” Maria’s final conversation with Margaret suggests otherwise. Maria explains to Margaret, “you are no fair judge of my lot. … If you could, for one day and night, feel with my feelings, and see through my eyes … you would know, from henceforth, that there are glimpses of heaven for me in solitude, as for you in love” (599). In this passage, supported by the several instances of Maria’s heavenly solitude that are provided throughout the book, the reader is encouraged to see Maria as removed from the generality in her actual peace with the lot that she has been granted. Though throughout the book these instances may seem unrealistic and idealized, in this final passage the reader is given one last encouragement to read Maria as actually unique within the category of invalid single women. Maria becomes through this work of fiction a nobody who ahs been granted “specificity that distinguishes [her] from the (fictional) generality out of which [she has] emerge[d]” (Greiner 47).

Thus, Martineau’s works support Greiner’s theory of sympathetic realism as ultimately aimed at arousing in the reader an emotional sympathy with the reader through cognitive entrance into their experience of the world; it is indeed through fiction that one is best able to cognitively enter into the emotional state of another and thereby to view that other as another specific self.


Works Cited

Greiner, Rae. “Going Along with Others: Adam Smith and the Realists.” Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. 15-49. Blackboard. Web. 2 April 2015.

Martineau, Harriet. Deerbrook. 1839. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

—. How to Observe Morals and Manners. 1838. N.p.: ReadaClassic.com, 2010

Redeeming Raveloe

Although, as I argued last week, Eliot manages to accurately present the socioeconomical Other (if not the national Other) in Middlemarch (1874), she seems to deviate entirely from her intended purpose in her 1861 novel Silas Marner. This book was published a mere five years after her essay “The Natural History of German Life,” in which she suggests that “Art is the nearest thing to life” and that, as such, the artist has a special responsibility to present the Other accurately (110). However, Eliot seems to have entirely forgotten that responsibility in writing Silas Marner. The novel’s idealized portrait of working-class life seems much more like that found in the “social novels” which “profess to represent the people as they are” but whose “unreali[stic] … representations [are] a great evil” than that found in the true, near-to-life works that Eliot supports in her essay (110).

Though it may seem that Eliot has thus deviated from her theory of art in Silas Marner, knowing the little that I do about Eliot’s convictions about reality and art, I am led to question whether or not this reading is accurate. Is Eliot really deviating from the purpose of the social novel in Silas Marner? Or is she perhaps attempting to create not a social novel but something else entirely?

I think the key to answering this question lies in the transformation that comes over Silas when Eppie first appears on his hearth. Though he was before consumed in his gold, worshipping it “in close-locked solitude” away from the community of Raveloe, after that gold has been replaced by the human child Silas becomes a part of the community that he before rejected (125). At the beginning of a lengthy passage contrasting the death-like condition in which Silas had lived when his object was lifeless gold to the very-much-alive condition into which he is forced when his object is the human child, the narrator explains, “the child created fresh and fresh links between his life and the lives from which he had hitherto shrunk continually into narrower isolation” (125). Thus, Eppie draws Silas out of himself and into community with the people of Raveloe, bringing him salvation through that community.

At the end of the chapter explaining the transformation that came over Silas after he adopts Eppie, the narrator parallels that transformation with the results of angelic intervention of the “old days” (131). She writes, “We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads then forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s” (131).

It is in this passage that I find an answer to the question of why Eliot deviates from her criteria of art as nearness to life. In paralleling the power of human community with biblical divine intervention (Eliot nods at the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah in this particular passage), Eliot suggests the former as a replacement for the latter. That is, she proposes that though the Bible may no longer be a source of salvation, community is a valid replacement for the rejected narrative. Salvation is found no longer found in Christ, but in community.

Because this appears to be the purpose of Eliot’s novel, I suggest that she is in this particular case not attempting to paint an accurate picture of life. She has temporarily laid aside her intention of creating art that is near to life in order to offer a narrative to replace that of the Bible. Rather than showing the people of the working class as they are, she is instead showing them as they ought to be in order to fulfill their salvific role. Though she is in the process (inaccurately) illustrating the working class, I think that she would perhaps count the people of Raveloe with the “Opera peasants” who “are surely too frank an idealization to be misleading” (“Natural” 110). The people of Raveloe are meant not to show life as it is, but life as it ought to be: a journey “towards a calm and bright land” made hand in hand with those of the community in which one lives (Silas 131).



Works Cited

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

—. Silas Marner. 1861. Ed. David Carroll. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.



The Artist and the Other

In “The Natural History of German Life,” George Eliot complains of the idealized portraits of the peasantry that so often appear in the arts. She argues that in order to truly fulfill their calling “of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (110), artists who depict the Other of the lower classes must do so accurately. As she writes, “our social novels profess to represent the people as they are, and the unreality of their representations is a grave evil” (110).

This standard of creating “Art [that] is the nearest thing to life” (110) is high, and places the calling of the artist in a noble light. Her role becomes more than that of creating things that are beautiful to the senses; instead, she must also be accurate at a historical, sociological level in order to expand the experience of the one who is enjoying her work of art.

We can assume that Eliot held these criteria for her own artistic creations as well as those of others. Indeed, the subtitle of her novel Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, indicates that she approached this work at least as an opportunity to consider and critique the real experiences that her novel depicts. But does Eliot measure up to the standard of accurate reflection that she has set?

There is one scene in Middlemarch that is especially relevant to and in which Eliot seems especially aware of the standards that she set out in “The Natural History.” In this particular scene, Mr. Brooke approaches the homestead on his property that he has leased to the degenerate Dagley family. The narrator remarks at the opening of the scene on how “it is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freedman’s End” (327). The farm itself seems to match perfectly those found in the “idyllic literature” that Eliot critiques in “The Natural History” as “always express[ing] the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life” (109).

However, as she continues with the scene, it becomes evident that the hardships of the Dagleys are anything but delightful to the members of the family. The Dagley family is not composed of the happy, healthy, clean and cooperative peasantry that the picturesqueness of the scene might initially suggest. Mrs. Dagley is “[o]verworked … a thin, worn woman whose life pleasures had so entirely vanished that she had not even any Sunday clothes which could give her satisfaction in preparing for church” (329)—very far from the “usually buxom” depictions of peasant women to which Eliot objects (“Natural” 108). Mr. Dalgey himself is brusque and irritated with his landlord. He refuses to listen to Mr. Brooke’s (perhaps unreasonable) complaint of his son’s poaching, insisting that “you’d better let my boy aloan, an’ look to yoursen, afore the Rinform has got upo’ your back” (Middlemarch 329-30). In fact, Dagley is, after a meal at a public house of which he has partaken much to his wife’s chagrin, rather drunk. And the jovial Mr. Brooke, after mentioning this fact, you know, retreats with the promise of returning another day.

Though Eliot thus succeeds in presenting the socioeconomical Other in a (presumably) accurate light, her depiction of the national Other slips into the same over-dramatized stereotyping that she protests against in “The Natural History.” This is evident in her account of Lydgate’s first love interest Madame Laure, the French actress. Though the majority of Eliot’s characters are realistically complex, Madame Laure is nothing more than a beautiful “Provençale, with dark eyes, a Greek profile, and rounded majestic form” (Middlemarch 145)—and a murderously independent character. In this case, rather than painting a realistic portrait of the Other, Eliot falls into presenting the stereotypical French character that was common in contemporary novels.

Thus, though Eliot appears to be aware of the value of accurately presenting the socioeconomical Other, she fails to carry her conviction of the necessity of accurate artistic representations of the lives of others into other forms of Otherness. As a result, though Middlemarch may help to widen the reader’s experience of social classes in Victorian England, it should not be consulted if one desires to understand anyone outside that particular context.


Works Cited

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Orchard Park: Broadview, 2004. Print.

—. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

Emotional Nearness and Formulaic Distance

In her essay “The Natural History of German Life,” George Eliot argues that artists who attempt to portray the lives of “the People” (i.e. the peasants and uneducated lower classes) have a special responsibility to portray those lives accurately. The reason for this is that “[a]rt is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot” (110). That is, because the artist has the ability to convey the life experiences of those in one class to those in another, she must be careful that the picture she paints is accurate.

This comment about the nature of art is quite fascinating, but the off-hand way that Eliot states it as fact in support of her argument in “The Natural History” leaves several questions unanswered. How is it that art happens to be the thing nearest to life? Is this true of all art, or is there art—perhaps that very form of art that she criticizes in “The Natural History of German Life”—that transgresses this principal? And does such transgression cause the work of art to lose its right to the title?

Eliot goes further toward answering these questions in her essay “Notes on Form in Art.” In this essay, she defines Form as consisting of complex unities, or “wholes composed of parts more and more multiplied and highly differenced, yet more and more absolutely bound together by various conditions of common likeness or mutual dependence” (232). The most complex whole, which, she suggests, is the human being, constitutes the highest Form.

After thus defining Form as consisting of a wholeness made up of parts, Eliot goes on to explain the appearance of Form in art, in which explanation we find her implicit argument for the nearness between art and life. She suggests that art, and specifically Poetic Form, which is the highest art because it is the most complex, is produced by emotion. She writes that “emotion, by its tendency to repetition … creates a form by the recurrence of its elements in adjustment with certain given conditions of sound, language, action, or environment” (235). That is, Poetic Form is created by conditions manipulated by a repeated emotional experience.

It is in this explanation of Poetic Form that I understand Eliot to be explicating her theory of art as the nearest thing to life. As she argues emotion creates art (specifically Poetic Form), she implies that life—the circumstances and events that one encounters and ones thoughts about and responses to those circumstances and events—creates emotion. For instance, she writes of “the rhythmic shouts with clash of metal accompanying the huntsman’s or conqueror’s course”—these experiences of life—as “the nucleus of the ballad epic” (235). If it is thus the case that life creates emotion, and emotion creates art, then it follows that it is life itself that ultimately creates art. Inasmuch as a thing created will in some sense resemble its creator, art will resemble, or, as Eliot suggests, come near to, life.

Though this may be the case, Eliot recognizes that not all art, and not even all literary art, is an expression of emotion and of life. Later in “Notes on Form in Art,” she writes that when the Poetic Form becomes a model for emotion itself, “poetry, from being the fullest expression of the human soul, is starved into an ingenious pattern-work, in which tricks with vocables take the pace of living words fed with the blood of relevant meaning, and made musical by continual intercommunication of sensibility and thought” (235). In other words, when emotion begins to be dictated by Form instead of Form by emotion, the Form itself loses its nearness to life, becoming a mere formula rather than a true From.

We imply from her tone in discussing formulaic art that Eliot holds that such transgression from her principle of art as the nearest thing to life results in works that are not in fact true art. Take, for instance, the non-artistic and anything-but-near-to-life “silly novels” such as those formulaic “mind-and-millinery” stories that Eliot critiques in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” The scathing tones with which she berates these works (in which the heroines “can talk with perfect correctness in any language except English” [143] and the plots “remind us of the pictures clever children sometimes draw ‘out of their own head’, where you will see a modern villa on the right, two knights in helmets fighting in the foreground, and a tiger grinning in the jungle on the left” [154]) reveals the disgust with which she observes such misdirected and far-fetched attempts at illustrating life.

However, Eliot’s own artistic works reveal that it is possible to redeem even these abused formulas. For instance, her 1874 novel Middlemarch is Eliot’s attempt to redeem the very mind-and-millinery formula she critiques in “Silly Novels,” creating a story that, though conforming to the formula, is yet dictated by emotion rather than by the Form itself. In so doing, Eliot demonstrates the principle of “The Natural History of German Life” and “Notes on Form in Art,” that it is not ultimately the Form that makes a work of art, but rather the work’s emotionally dictated nearness to life.


Works Cited

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 107-139. Print.

—. “Notes on Form in Art.” 1868. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 231-236. Print

—. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” 1856. George Eliot: Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt. New York: Penguin, 1990. 140-163. Print

How to Judge a Book by its Cover

… and do you know Dr. Epps?—I think you do. Ask him who wrote Jane Eyre and Shirley. Do tell me who wrote Jane Eyre. (Letter to —–, May 29, 1849)

Elizabeth Gaskell: Nosy and trifling.

I have seen Branwell’s profile; it is what would be generally esteemed very handsome; the forehead is massive, the eye well set, and the expression of it fine and intellectual; the nose too is good; but there are coarse lines about the mouth, and the lips, though of handsome shape, are loose and thick, indicating self-indulgence, while the slightly retreating chin conveys an idea of weakness of will. (Life 146)

Elizabeth Gaskell: Prone to placing weight on insignificant details.

Or was she?

While the passages above seem to suggest that Gaskell was inordinately concerned with appearance, an episode in Mary Barton reveals that Gaskell’s interest in the faces and figure of her fellow writers is perhaps not as petty as you might at first suppose.

As Jem Wilson stands trial in Liverpool, the onlookers comment upon his appearance. They analyze his face, attempting “to trace in the features common to humanity some expression of the crimes by which they have distinguished themselves from their kind” (320). As they do so, one of them comments to his neighbor, “I am no physiognomist, but I don’t think his face strikes me as bad” (320). Taken in conjunction with Gaskell’s interest in the looks of her compatriots, this brief comment suggests that perhaps that interest was not based upon mere idle curiosity. Instead, Gaskell seems to have considered herself to be what this bystander is not: “An expert in or student of physiognomy; a person who reads faces or other physical features to discern character, personality, etc.” (“physiognomist”).

The study of a person’s face in order to discern his or her character was quite common in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the reasons for this was the late-eighteenth century publication of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Physiognomy: or the Corresponding Analogy between the Conformation of the Features and the Ruling Passions of the Mind. This book made a science of analyzing faces, suggesting that a person’s face is indicative of his or her character. Though the credibility of Lavater’s theory was of course questioned, physiognomy yet became a popular practice during the early- to mid-nineteenth century: Lavater’s book went through fifty-five editions in various languages during its first forty years in print, and sales did not slacken in England until around 1870 (Graham 562).

Given the popularity of physiognomic study during Gaskell’s lifetime, her interest in the appearance of others becomes less trifling. Like many others, Gaskell was interested in how high was the forehead, how deeply set were the eyes, and how prominent was the chin because she believed that these details could convey important information about the character of the individual who was being studied. Having obtained this information, the observer would be better equipped to interpret that individual’s actions.

Knowing this information about Gaskell in turn helps us as readers to interpret Gaskell’s writings. If Gaskell believed that the face reveals the character, then we as readers should pay special attention to all descriptions of faces in her writings, for in these descriptions lie hints as to the disposition of the person described. Thus, physiognomy becomes an important tool for interpretation of Gaskell’s writings, and we learn like Gaskell that it is not always inappropriate to judge a book by its cover.



Works Cited

Graham, John. “Lavater’s Physiognomy in England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 22.4 (1961): 561-572. JSTOR. Web. 21 Feb 2015.

“physiognomist.” OED Online. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

A Tale of Two Authoresses

Once upon a time in a land far, far away lived two women named Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. Though these women were not intimate friends, they each decided to take upon themselves the similar task of recording the events of the past: Martineau, the events of her own life, and Gaskell, those of the life of her recently deceased friend Charlotte Brontë. After months of hard labor and gallons of ink, these women succeeded in their attempt and published their works.

For years their histories were viewed as an accurate account of the events that they recorded. However, one day some literary critics, who had been influenced by the postmodern understanding of the inaccessibility of the past, took it upon themselves to show that the narratives that the authors provided were perhaps not as factual as the readers had supposed. Instead, they argued that the narratives that Martineau and Gaskell presented were respectively “factually inaccurate” (Liddle 57) and supportive of the “[r]eaders’ construction of the Brontës as authors” that is “an important part of the Brontë myth” (Stoneman 216). That is, these critics recognized Martineau’s Autobiography and Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë as mythologized biographical pictures of ideal writers and women, rather than as factually accurate historical accounts of the authors’ lives.

The rather anticlimactic ending of this tale opens up an interesting question. Granted that Martineau and Gaskell were biased and at times factually inaccurate in their presentations of the past, is it possible to look beyond that inaccuracy and perhaps gain an understanding of Martineau’s and Brontë’s experience of the recorded events as they occurred?

Though it may seem that the one who actually experienced the events would be the best authority on that experience, it seems that between the two accounts Martineau’s Autobiography provides the reader with the least accurate recording of her experience of the events. As Liddle points out in her chapter “The Authoress’s Tale,” Martineau carefully crafted her account of her life to show herself to be the natural journalist that she wished to be remembered. As a result, we loose a good deal of how Martineau experienced the events at the time they occurred. Though we are given a glimpse into how Martineau viewed her life in 1855, we do not see what she actually experienced at the time of, for instance, the publication of her first essay in 1822.

Of course, Gaskell also manipulated her account of Brontë’s life to show her as an idealized woman and author. However, Gaskell’s account comes closer to providing us with an account of Brontë’s experience of her life as it occurred. Given that her Life is based upon Brontë’s letters, and indeed contains many of those letters, we are able to get a more accurate picture of what Brontë thought or felt about the events that she experienced as she experienced them. Though Gaskell herself crafts her account of Brontë’s life in order to support “the Brontë myth,” because she bases that account on letters written by Brontë at the time that the events occurred, the reader is able to understand how those events were experienced by the young Brontë.

Thus, because of her extensive use of letters, Gaskell’s Life is able to convey a better idea of Brontë’s actual experience of the events of her life at the time at which they occurred than Martineau manages in her Autobiography. Though both are mythologized, there is perhaps more factual accuracy available from a distanced perspective than from the one living through the Happily Ever After and into The End.

Sympathy at its Finest

After a protracted account of Mrs. Rowland’s malicious exploits and of the suffering that she has brought upon nearly every character in the novel, Deerbrook offers an assessment of her conduct from the novel’s two most admirable characters. In a conversation with Margaret and Hester, Mr. Hope says, “In a city, Mrs. Rowland might have been an ordinary spiteful fine lady. In such a place as Deerbrook, and with a family of rivals’ cousins incessantly before her eyes, to exercise her passions upon, she has ended in being…” (589). Margaret supplies him with the undeservedly gentle phrase, “What she is” (589).

Hope’s assessment is problematic in its apparent justification of the conduct of ordinary spiteful fine ladies who abide in the city, where they are able to get away from those they dislike and where the trouble that they can cause is relatively insignificant. He almost seems to suggest that it does not matter what one’s habits are so long as those habits do not negatively affect one’s neighbors. How is it that Mr. Hope, and perhaps Martineau through Mr. Hope, can so readily excuse Mrs. Rowland’s abominable behavior?

I think the key to answering this question lies in Martineau’s conception of sympathy. The Oxford English Dictionary describes sympathy as “the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another or others; fellow-feeling.” In How to Observe Morals and Manners Martineau argues that if a person is without this ability to enter into the experience of another, “there is no point of the universe … where he can meet with his fellow” (31). Thus, she sees sympathy as necessary to any genuine human interaction.

It is not surprising, then, that the hero of Martineau’s novel should demonstrate this essential quality, even toward the novel’s villain. In his assessment of Mrs. Rowland’s behavior, Mr. Hope does not jump to conclusions about her character that are as drastic as the effects of her conduct seem to warrant. Instead, he exercises sympathy toward her, taking her location into consideration and recognizing that her gossip has been so incredibly destructive only because she lives in such a small and intimate community. Mr. Hope’s capacity to enter into Mrs. Rowland’s feelings allows him to explain the behavior that led to otherwise unaccountable consequences.

That being said, Mr. Hope by no means excuses Mrs. Rowland’s malice; he still recognizes that she has inflicted upon Margaret “a cruel injury” (589), and is no doubt aware of the effects that her behavior has had on the whole Deerbrook community. However, Mr. Hope’s sympathetic assessment allows him to see that the magnitude of the damage Mrs. Rowland has caused is owing rather to the smallness of the community than to the enormity of her ill will. In so doing, Mr. Hope provides the reader with a means of understanding the almost comically dramatic effects of the Deerbrook rivalry: not as a grossly exaggerated representation of the power of gossip, but as a critique of gossip and of rivalry in general, even where the situation of those involved keeps it from having so universal an effect.

Facing Fears and Fostering Sympathy

In an article on the “Trusted Non-Profit Resource” HelpGuide.org titled “Attachment Issues and Reacitve Attachment Disorder,” Melinda Smith, Joanna Saisan, and Jeanne Segal provide an account of the causes, symptoms, and treatments of attachment disorders. They explain that children with an attachment disorder suffer from “a lack of trust and self-worth, a fear of getting close to anyone, anger, and a need to be in control.” The result is that these children “fee[l] unsafe and alone.” Attachment disorders “occur when children have been unable to consistently connect with a parent or primary caregiver”—for instance, when a child is hungry or not receiving proper attention. Symptoms of attachment disorders include inconsolable crying, keen awareness of or reactions too sensory stimuli, intense desire to be in control, and emotional withdrawal or detachment.

Very good. But what, you ask, has this to do with Harriet Martineau?

In her 1855 Autobiography, Martineau gives an account of the difficulties that she faced as a child, which difficulties are remarkably similar to the symptoms of attachment disorders described in Smith, Saisan and Segal’s article. Martineau explains that her mother always ascribed her daughter’s poor health in childhood and youth to the fact she “was all but starved” for the first three months of her life by her poor wetnurse, who was “holding on to her good place after her milk was going or gone” (39). This event, however unintentional, could doubtless be classed as one of those improper attentions that cause attachment disorders described above.

Martineau goes on to explain the physical and mental complaints that she suffered during her early years: “never was poor mortal cursed with a more beggarly nervous system” (40); “I could never cross the yard to the garden without flying and panting, and fearing to look behind, because a wild beast was after me” (40); “my panics were really unaccountable” (43); “I was always in a state of shame about something or other” (43); “I had no self-respect, and an unbounded need for approbation and affection” (46). Perhaps most telling is Martineau’s assertion that “[m]y fear of persons was as great as any other” (40). Each of these statements points to that condition described by Smith, Saisan and Segal.

In reading Martineau’s account of her early childhood, one cannot help but be moved by her portrayal of the fear that she faced at every turn. However, this account becomes even more remarkable when one considers the fact that this child whose “moral discernment was almost wholly obscured by fear and mortification” (47) became the astute and sympathetic author of How to Observe Morals and Manners. What brought about this transformation?

According to Martineau herself, it was her religion that allowed her to overcome the fears of her childhood. She writes, “the only support and pleasure I remember having from a very early age was from [religion]” (44), explaining that “[w]hile I was afraid of everybody I saw, I was not in the least afraid of God” (45). In some way, Martineau’s belief in God and reliance upon the structures provided by her faith enabled her to move beyond her intense anxiety and become a functioning and influential adult.

This connection, though by no means fully established here, between attachment disorders and Martineau’s account of her childhood terrors and of how her religious beliefs enabled the radical change that she experienced merits further consideration, both by those interested in Martineau and by those who seek to help troubled and traumatized children.

Work Ethic in America

In How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838), Harriet Martineau suggests that, as the geologist can tell what are the occupations of the inhabitants of an area based upon his observations of the geological features of the land that they occupy, so the observer of society can tell what are the morals of a given people group based upon her observations of the society’s occupations (89-91). By observing the means of employment available to the members of a society, you are indirectly observing the morals to which that society holds—you are getting a feel for what we would call the “work ethic” of that society.

Martineau consistently applies this principle of looking at a society’s work in order to understand its ethic in her observations of early nineteenth-century U.S., Society in America (1837). In the excerpts from the text that we read this week, Martineau comments upon the work ethic of the American people, and specifically upon the discrepancy between that in the northern and that in the southern states.

Martineau makes the blunt observation of the people in the northern states that “[t]he youths must, without exception, work hard; or they had better drown themselves” (2.2.5). Surprising though this statement may seem, Martineau goes on to explain how the absolute necessity of working hard brings about the positive qualities of ingenuity and thoughtfulness in those who perform it. Indeed, in these northern states wealth and the leisure that it brings are viewed as a misfortune because they do not foster such positive qualities in those who possess said wealth and leisure. Though “[t]he time will come, when the society is somewhat older, when it will be understood that wealth need not preclude work … at present, there are no individuals so forlorn, in the northern states, as young men of fortune” (2.2.5). Based upon the language that Martineau employs in this section, you get the impression that she approves of this approach to work—that this work ethic is close to that found in her theoretical ideal society.

In contrast to the almost universal engagement in hard work amongst those in the northern states, in the southern states “[t]he vicious fundamental principle of morals in a slave country, that labour is disgraceful, taints the infant mind…” (2.2.5). Martineau speaks with scorn and pity of the attitude of all in the southern states toward any sort of manual labor. She further shows how this attitude and the society in which it exists leads ultimately to anxiety and constant work on the part of the slave owners, who must reprimand their slaves for not performing tasks to their liking rather than simply performing the tasks themselves. The work ethic—or rather lack of it—that is found in the southern states, in contrast to that in the northern states, is far from Martineau’s ideal.

This particular example demonstrates the consistency and conformity between Martineau’s principles for observations as recorded in How to Observe Morals and Manners and her application of those principles in Society in America—no great surprise when one realizes from their respective publication dates that the principles followed and more than likely grew out of their application.